How do conditions during a mother’s pregnancy affect her child’s health throughout life? Between generations, do some families pass on more mutations than others? These are some of the questions that Logan Spector, Ph.D., and colleagues are striving to answer through a new study that seeks to enroll 10,000 families for generational research.
Health, diseases, and risk factors can run in families. The goal is to understand how genetics and lifestyle habits contribute to health and disease, including cancer.
“This is the first family-based cancer cohort we know of,” says Spector, who serves on the leadership team for the study and is a professor of pediatrics at the University of Minnesota. “The family-based design is very powerful for finding genes that cause cancer by themselves, as well as genes that interact with the environment to cause cancer.”
Researchers are enrolling families with young children, their parents, siblings, and grandparents. Masonic support launched the study and is funding the effort to scale it up.
A 21st century cohort
Spector and his team are focused on recruiting families with diverse backgrounds—ethnically, economically, and geographically—to mirror the state’s demographics.
It will be more challenging to enroll participants who live far away from the Twin Cities because the hope is that all will attend a health fair, where the team takes physical measurements and biological samples that will be used for DNA and other analyses. The group is figuring out a process for obtaining critical samples and measurements through the mail instead of in person. They’re also working to gain access to participants’ electronic health records through the major health systems in the state, and devising a schedule for contacting and collecting data and samples from participants on an ongoing basis.
Recruitment was bolstered significantly at the Minnesota State Fair last year, where more than 600 people were screened. The team plans to continue recruiting at the fair, while also seeking out participants through social media and community partnerships.
As of March 2019, more than 100 families had enrolled in the study, and the group hopes to expand to 1,000 families this year.
An ambitious undertaking
While a study of this magnitude can take up to five years to reach its enrollment goal, Spector says the study will continue indefinitely, as long as researchers can sustain it.
“Cancer is the leading cause of death in Minnesota, and every cancer can—and should—be looked at under the microscope,” Spector says.
As the children who participate in the study grow up and have families of their own, researchers can seek to enroll them so the study can continue to grow.
The 10,000 Families Study is currently in the pilot phase, and the team is gathering valuable information to help them ramp up recruitment efforts. Researchers have made major progress on details that are critical to expand the study successfully. This includes launching the online portal where enrollment and study questionnaires can be completed, developing data and sample collection procedures, and creating a process for taking measurements and samples at health fairs.
Researchers are taking a novel approach to collecting some data and analyzing findings. “We are using apps to measure cognitive function,” explains DeAnn Lazovich, Ph.D., M.P.H., part of the U’s public health faculty and member of the research team. “Participants draw a clock face using a digital pen, which captures time and keystrokes. We are also using apps to measure lung function and hearing.”
The study will use big data and advanced new technologies to understand how cancer differs from person to person. Cancer is a complex disease that can be triggered by multiple risk factors, and Masonic Cancer Center researchers seek to target cancer at the individual level. Spector refers to this as “precision prevention.” Researchers will eventually work with the Minnesota Supercomputing Institute to analyze and store data from participants’ genomic sequencing, a type of DNA analysis.
Spector, a cancer researcher, expects the study to help unlock clues about other conditions like diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and neurologic disorders.
“The goal of the 10,000 Families Study is to have something impactful for the University, for future generations of scientists, and future Minnesotans,” Spector says. “We’re especially grateful for the Masons’ support because they see the value in doing long-term projects.”